The Dragon's Trail
The Biography of Raphael's Masterpiece
Raphael's masterpiece was commissioned by Duke Guidobaldo da Montefeltro, the ruler of Urbino, in 1506. Raphael was only twenty-three years old, but he had already begun to acquire a reputation as a painter who was as ruthless in his pursuit of money as he was talented. The duke sent the painting to England's King Henry VII as a thank-you for naming him a knight in the Order of the Garter.
The painting then mysteriously disappeared for one hundred years until King Charles I saw it hanging in the collection of the Earl of Pembroke and acquired it for a book of Holbein drawings. After Charles was beheaded in 1649, his collection was broken up and the painting made its way to the private gallery of the third-richest man in France, where it was ensconced in its own special room. Thirty years later, the philosopher Diderot was instructed by Catherine the Great of Russia to buy it for her vast collection at the Hermitage.
The heroic curators of the Hermitage protected St. George and the Dragon from fire, water, and the anarchists of the Russian Revolution, until Joseph Stalin sold it in 1930 to raise cash. The secret buyer was Andrew Mellon, Treasury Secretary of the United States, who in doing so blatantly violated a U.S. sanction against doing any business with Soviet Russia. Mellon eventually founded The National Gallery in Washington, D.C., where St. George and the Dragon rests to this day.
Exceptionally written and breathlessly paced, The Dragon's Trail is a microhistory that touches on the rise of the Tudors, the downfall of a Stuart, the twilight of the French aristocracy, the terrors of the Bolshevik revolution, and the depths of the Cold War -- all witnessed by one painting that inspired the best and the worst instincts in its owners.
Reading Group Guide
1. Who was Raphael at the time Duke Guidobaldo de Montofeltro commissioned him? Who was Raphael as he grew older? How would you characterize him right before his death? Compare and contrast Raphael to other artists of his time in terms of age, ability, drive, commissions, longevity of work, and so on.
2. Why would Duke Guidobaldo de Montofeltro commission Raphael to create a work for such an important purpose when Raphael was so young and the Duke had so many other artists from whom to choose? How do you feel about the choices Raphael made in the creation of the painting -- color, theme, symbol usage, and so forth?
3. Did King Henry VII like the painting? Did he "appreciate" it aesthetically? What was King Henry the VII like -- As a king? As a man?
4. How did the painting happen to end up in the collection of the Earl of Pembroke? What did the Earl think of the work? Why would he give it to King Charles I in exchange for a book of Holbein drawings?
5. What made King Charles I want the painting upon seeing it hanging in the Earl's collection? How would you characterize King Charles I? Were his motives for wanting the painting independent of his aesthetic interest in the piece?
6. When the painting later resurfaced in the private gallery of "the third richest man in France," how do we learn it got there? Why did that collector have an interest in the piece? Where did h see more